Portrait of an Artist

Documentary filmmaker, Linda Freeman, on capturing Jacob Lawrence’s artistic process on film

From Jacob Lawrence: The Glory of Expression, produced by Linda Freeman; directed by
David Irving; © L&S Video, Inc. All rights reserved.

At 24-years-old, painter Jacob Lawrence was already a nationally recognized artist. His groundbreaking Migration Series (1940-41) — 60 paintings about the northward migration of African-Americans from the post-Reconstruction South — had vaulted him among the ranks of America’s most important Modernists. He was also an African-American working in the early 1940s — educated in Harlem and as part of the federal Works Progress Administration program, outside traditional art institutions. When New York’s Downtown Gallery picked him up, he became the first black artist to be represented by a major New York gallery. Wittingly or not, he had become a symbol of hope and striving at a time when Jim Crow still ruled the South.

It was a lot of pressure for such a young artist; in 1949 Lawrence checked himself for four months into Hillside Hospital, in Queens, seeking treatment for depression —where, like Van Gogh, he painted deeply affecting scenes of hospital life. With the help of his wife, fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, he kept himself largely out of the limelight in the decades that followed, moving to Seattle in 1970 to teach, where he remained until his death in 2000.

He granted few interviews in those later years. And yet he agreed to let filmmaker Linda Freeman into his home and studio in the 1990s to film him and Gwendolyn as part of a documentary series. Christie’s spoke with Ms. Freeman by phone about the experience of making her film, Jacob Lawrence: The Glory of Expression, ahead of an online-only sale of Jacob Lawrence’s work.

Artists are so often very private people. Was it hard convincing him to go on camera — especially in his studio?

It did take him a long time to say yes to me, because at first he said he [doesn’t want to do] it, he doesn’t want interviews. But I would say, "Can I keep calling? Can I call you again?" because he is such a nice guy, and I didn’t want to put him under pressure. I do tell everybody that if they’re not happy with something in the documentary we will take it out, because I really want [the documentary] to be something that they [feel] good about.

So what did he think about the film once it was done?

He loved it. He thought it was great

Did you feel that you formed a friendship? Did you stay in touch afterward?

I didn’t really stay in touch with him. I may have seen him once or twice afterwards, and he was with his wife, [Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence]. But he was the gentlest, kindest man that I was just so impressed with. But I found him very powerful in a very quiet way, because what he did was document this whole period of history of the African-American experience through his work.

What was it like watching him paint? Was there anything about his technique that surprised you in person?

Yes, what surprised me was the scale, which was small — how he drew it in and with gouache. He didn’t layer things, it was just straight painting of a flat color, filling in shapes [while] telling stories that meant a tremendous amount to him. He didn’t put a color down, let it dry, and put another color on top. He just went flat, like if you were cutting out pieces of paper.

[One] thing that struck me [was] how small his studio was. [It was] tiny. It was like if you go up the second floor in a small house, and there’s sort of like an attic space – that was it. You would think a man of his stature would have this big enormous studio, and assistants.

Jacob Lawrence, Windows (1977), gouache and pencil on paper; © Jacob and
Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation / Christie’s Images BID NOW

You mentioned Gwendolyn, his wife: I thought the film’s portrayal of their relationship was a really nice touch. What was it like to be there with the two of them, and what was their relationship like off-camera?

They were a strong team. There was a tremendous love between them, and they were very, very supportive of each other. She was an artist in her own right, and they supported each other and were interested in each other’s work, and very encouraging to each other.

What was Gwendolyn’s role in Jacob’s career, the way you understood it?

Well, because she was an artist and he respected her in her work, he respected her opinion. I think she helped organize things and helped at galleries who represented him — kept track of where [his paintings] were going, what was being shown, keeping his files in an orderly way. I don’t think he could do more than what he did, [which] was paint about what he felt about. I think she really did the rest of it.

He had tremendous acclaim very early in his life, and it became too much for him. [I showed in the film that] he was in a [psychiatric] hospital because you needed to know that it wasn’t clear sailing for him. He needed a good wife who loved him, supported him, and would navigate more of the business end so he could just make his art.

In the film, he says, "Struggle is a beautiful thing." Not everyone has the fortitude to struggle and succeed like he did. What qualities did you notice that may have helped him succeed? He broke through barriers for a lot of people — you have to be tough for that.

Well, that was what made him so special, he was very tough and he was very gentle. He felt his feelings very strongly and he was very protective of himself. I think sometimes when you become famous very young it’s overwhelming. And I think the tendency for him to get overwhelmed was probably greater than [his propensity toward] a mental breakdown.

But he had a vision. He was passionate about the political environment that he grew up in, because there was bigotry when he grew up and black artists weren’t in museums when he grew up. It was a tremendous struggle to arrive on the art scene as an African-American of his generation.

Christie’s is selling Lawrence’s work in a variety of mediums in an online-only auction, running from Feb. 21 to March 4, 2014. (Click here for more details.) For more on this and other online-only auctions at Christie’s, see www.christies.com/onlineonly.